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Councils tear up devolution plans

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The new councils in Northumberland and Durham have torn up the original plans for local devolution, which formed a key part of their successful unitary bids.

Both are consulting on local area structures they believe would work better than those proposed by the old county councils.

The move indicates that the new unitaries could differ radically in their community engagement from the structures originally approved by the government. All bidders had been told by ministers to make local engagement a top priority.

Northumberland’s new council has abandoned its original ‘Belonging Communities’ system, which would have divided the county into 27 areas.

Instead it will ask localities to organise as they choose based on groups of parishes.

Andrew Tebbutt (Lib Dem), executive member for corporate services, said: “It is not for us to determine how local communities should organise themselves. People did not like being told what community they had to belong to.”

Plans for three area committees for licensing, planning and scrutiny are in limbo after Tory and Labour councillors outvoted the minority Lib Dem administration and called for five areas, roughly mirroring the existing two-tier districts.

Local government minister John Healey said of Northumberland: “It is reasonable for them to be refining proposals that were originally submitted, debated and agreed, but we do expect those proposals to be delivered.” He said if councils wanted to modify the plans, he would “expect them to explain that clearly and effectively”.

Meanwhile, the new Durham unitary has launched a consultation on local structures. Community development manager Craig Morgan said: “The bid was based on 12 to 14 areas, but the new cabinet felt that if people wanted more areas to deliver services that should be looked at, so long as it does not increase the overall cost.”

The Boundary Committee for England has proposed large unitaries for Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk on the basis of local community structures set out in bids (LGC, 24 July).

South Norfolk DC leader John Fuller (Con) said: “The committee does not seem to realise a council cannot bind its successors.”

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